With 11 minutes to play last night, Middlesbrough were 3-0 down and virtually out of the Uefa Cup at the last-16 stage, even before next week's second leg in Lisbon against Sporting, for whom Roudolphe Douala lit up the Riverside with two goals.
With 11 minutes to play last night, Middlesbrough were 3-0 down and virtually out of the Uefa Cup at the last-16 stage, even before next week's second leg in Lisbon against Sporting, for whom Roudolphe Douala lit up the Riverside with two goals. But if Joseph-Desire Job's apparently sole consolation from a spectacular scissor kick allowed the faintest of hopes, then Chris Riggott's volley in the dying minutes more than doubled them.
It spoke of that most valuable commodity, character. Without it, Boro will not have a prayer against a side who, on last night's evidence, could hold them on an average night and shred them when on song. With it, who can tell? Certainly Steve McClaren, Boro's manager, is not yet giving up the ghost of a chance of a 2-0 away win or better, which is what he requires to move to the quarter-finals.
"Character and attitude put us back in the tie," he said. "I think there was enough evidence tonight that we can score over there."
Neither Boro nor Sporting have been in great form in their domestic leagues, Boro winning just one of their last nine in the Premiership. But in Europe, things have been different, with Boro having won four of four home games before last night and Sporting have won two and drawn two away.
Something had to give, and in the first 20 minutes it seemed likely to be the home defence, under pressure from a trio of tricksy opponents. One of them was a familiar foe, Newcastle's Hugo Viana, who is on a season-long loan back in his native country. His zigzag running caused constant problems and when he linked effectively with the Brazilian-Cameroon strike pairing of Liedson and Douala ahead of him, a converted chance never seemed far away.
The visitors were probably relieved that Michael Reiziger was not match-sharp on his return from injury. He was jeered for twice kicking the ball directly at opponents' shins wasting breaks and again for failing to make more of a spilt ball that left Sporting's goalline unattended.
The home fans gave an ironic cheer when Szilard Nemeth was announced as his replacement in the second half. Their good humour lasted for three minutes, which was when Pedro Barbosa stole the ball from Franck Queudrue and threaded it to Douala. He passed to Liedson, who found Barbosa, who slotted home an assured right-hand shot.
Boro were reeling, and when the second goal arrived five minutes later the architects were no surprise. Liedson broke on the right and whipped a cross to an unmarked Douala who headed for 2-0.
McClaren replaced the 19-year-old striker Danny Graham with Job. That stabilised things long enough for Bolo Zenden to thwack a long-range shot that required a decent save from Ricardo.
The third Sporting goal arose after Viana's parried drive fell to Liedson at the right-hand post. He passed to Douala, who had time to juggle with his feet before he tapped in.
Cue the unlikely fightback.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Parnaby, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Reiziger (Nemeth, h-t), Doriva, Zenden, Downing; Graham (Job, 54), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Cooper, McMahon, Wheater, Johnson.
Sporting Lisbon (4-3-3): Ricardo; Rogerio, Enakarhire, Hugo, Oliveira; Moutino, Rochemback, Viana; Barbosa (Sa Pinto, 77), Douala (Seveno, 90), Liedson (Tello, 78). Substitutes not used: Pereira (gk), Martins, Niculae, Garcia.
Referee: S Farina (Italy).